Saturday, March 31, 2007

Tactless

Count me as part of the ever-increasing group of people who are sick of the ridiculous level of sensationalism that exists in the media. To keep this post from being longer than it already is going to be, I won’t get into the vast instances of the general news media over-blowing stories. I’ll simply focus on the sports media and how it has evolved for the worse since the days when tact existed and “off the record” meant off the record.

Billy Donovan prepared his team all week for a Final Four match-up against a very focused and dangerous UCLA team. Donovan is trying to make history by being the first coach in 15 years to win back to back NCAA Championships. This is a team he loves coaching and hasn’t indicated any interest in anything other than the task at hand. Yet, the headline on ESPN for two straight days was “Cats Got His Tongue”. The “Cats” is obviously a reference to the Kentucky Wildcats who happen to have a high-profile coaching vacancy. The headline also insinuates that Donovan is preoccupied by the Kentucky vacancy at a time when his focus needs to be on his current team. Where ESPN could have easily done a story about various coaches (Donovan among others) that Kentucky could target and the likelihood of Kentucky offering each coach, it chose to make Donovan’s supposed interest the story.

Say what you want about Donovan’s reputation as being a slick recruiter; that hardly makes it OK to orchestrate a story by putting him in an impossible situation. As far as I know, Donovan has not been in contact with Kentucky. He has repeatedly stated that his focus is 100% on trying to win a second National Championship. In fact, if I were Donovan, I would call Kentucky and tell them to back off or they can forget about an interview. It’s not like Donovan makes “chump change” at Florida. Plus, Florida will give him a raise if a) he wins the Championship and b) Kentucky makes overtures which they obviously will. But, that’s for Donovan to decide.

I understand that some people will argue that Donovan brought this on himself because when asked about being a candidate for the Kentucky job, Donovan responded, “There's always going to be speculation and people want to talk, and I can't control that. What I can control is how I choose to focus my time and how my team chooses to focus its time. I think right now our team has great respect for UCLA and our focus is getting ready to play them." A number of Donovan detractors have claimed that he only fueled the speculation by not saying he wasn’t interested in the Kentucky job. While that seems to possess some logic on its face, that argument falls to pieces when you consider the alternative; the alternative, of course, being the route Nick Saban took.

If Donovan did say he wasn’t interested in the Kentucky opening just to get reporters off his back, then when he inevitably does interview with Kentucky, he will be portrayed as a lying, backstabbing, money-grabber. The media has the perfect set up. If you try to do what A-Rod does in New York and give vanilla answers, then you are a “liar”. If you try to do what Gary Sheffield does and speak your mind, you are a “troublemaker”. The media obviously prefers the latter because there are few “meaty” stories with the former.

Big Brother has always been a pseudonym for the government but it almost seems like that moniker is starting to apply to the media. Every answer to every question on every subject is a potential story. Every wrong word or misstep is a chance for someone to be portrayed as a racist or liar. Don’t get me wrong; some instances merit such treatment (i.e. Tim Hardaway). However, for every story that deserves the scrutiny, there are countless others that are simply created by media scribes looking for a juicy scoop. The worst offenders are the college football sideline reporters that ask a coach who is walking off the field in the middle of a winning celebration if he is going to accept a job at another institution. The day a coach says, “why yes, I think I’ll immediately stop celebrating this win and accept the job at State” is the day sideline reporters will stop asking that ridiculous question. That rivals people that don’t use their turn signals as one of my biggest pet peeves.

The media pretty much dictated the way the Donovan situation would play out before Donovan even said anything. It has lambasted folks for lying and telling the truth which is why Donovan refused to do either. Unfortunately for Donovan, the media has proved that it doesn’t need a lie or a truth to blow up a story. It simply needs “a source inside the Kentucky Athletic Department”.

There was a time when I wanted to be in the sports world as a journalist of some sort. I got a chance to do this for a reputable TV station in Detroit. I interviewed Detroit sports celebrities from Tom Izzo to Shane Battier. The most insightful interview I ever had, though, was when I spoke with Aaron Ward after a Detroit/Colorado hockey game. My job was to get a sound bite for the news. Since this was Game 32 of the regular season, I really didn’t have any questions from a fan’s perspective. I had to fain interest by posing questions that I thought a typical media person would ask. Since this was Detroit/Colorado, I asked if the departure of Claude Lemieux had lessened the rivalry. Ward looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “That is a story that you guys in the media created. We don’t even think about that.” As a novice, I kind of took his remark personally since I hadn’t created anything. Then it dawned on me that I was doing exactly what I hated. I didn’t want to ask the question. In fact, I didn’t want to ask Ward any questions. I hate to say it but I had no interest in anything that he could have said. I can only imagine that there are hundreds, if not, thousands of reporters around the country today that are in similar situations. This is just another instance of how the almighty dollar has compromised the integrity of the sports world. ESPN runs a story compromising the integrity of the Final Four for the same reasons that I had to come up with “dummy” questions for Aaron Ward. Both situations were an attempt to create or manufacture a story for ratings.

As a sports fan, there are only a handful of things that interest me about the state of my favorite team during the regular season. I certainly don’t have ten new questions after each of the 82 regular season games. For instance, right now with regards to the Red Wings, I am interested in how Todd Bertuzzi is doing and when Henrik Zetterberg is coming back. As far as game to game stuff, the regular season is meaningless to me at this point. I don’t care how fired up the Wings got after a scuffle against St. Louis in the third period. Yet, there are 20 reporters after every game asking 10 questions just like that to 20 different players. That’s a lot of questions that nobody cares about. With that many questions over 82 regular season games, there are bound to be slip ups and controversies. Anyhow, that experience left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life creating questions that I had no interest in. (Disclaimer—not every interviewer is asking questions to “stir the pot”. Journalists and TV reporters have stories to write and air every day. To make their deadlines, day after day, these people have to ask the “run of the mill” questions to get out the next game recap as quickly as possible. I understand this and I have no problem with it. My beef is when these things are done without tact.)

The hopes and dreams of every sports fan lie in speculation. The media understands this. That is why the media over-speculates things to death. The Donovan situation is a perfect example. People around the country from every fan-base are interested in the Kentucky coaching search. It is a story “with legs.” So ESPN puts the over-sensationalism machine to work. Despite Donovan’s wishes to stay out of the story until after the Final Four (which is only two days from now by the way), ESPN has made him the story without anything substantial from Donovan.

I love speculation. My two favorite things to discuss in sports are speculation and history. Drafts, coaching searches, and the NCAA Selection Show are three of my favorite things to speculate about. What ESPN needs to understand is that speculation can exist without crossing the line. You don’t need to ask Billy Donovan at his Final Four press conference if he is going to take the Kentucky job in order to have a good story. ESPN didn’t do anything wrong by speculating; it did something wrong in the way that it is speculated. I understand that the media’s job is to sensationalize. Media publications are competitive markets just like the car industry or any other free-market industry. The competition has increased to a point where tact has been squeezed out of the equation. Privacy and respect are luxuries of the past. Every police blotter is monitored by a news scribe waiting to report that Athlete X got pulled over for going seven mph over the speed limit.

This isn’t a blanket attack on all things related to sports media. There are reputable journalists in every city and at every news organization. Editors are forced to play “the game” to keep up with the competition. It’s not the fault of any one person or one network. It’s just the way the industry has evolved. Nonetheless, the media has started to cross the line to the point where I don’t even want to read the newspaper or internet sports sites anymore. I’d rather talk to Joe Sportsfan down the road at the local pub about the Cleveland Indians or read a reputable blogger discuss possibilities without directly effecting the outcome of a national sporting event. That last comment might sound a little extreme but I assure you that this sort of unprofessional speculation can influence the outcome of an event.

This Donovan thing has every element of the Larry Brown/Pistons/Knicks debacle of 2005. I don’t have many positive things to say about Larry Brown but the media created that whole situation prematurely when it could have easily waited a week until the Finals were over. The Pistons were preparing to play the Spurs in the NBA Finals and just about every story focused on Brown’s possible desire to leave Detroit for New York. I’m not going to say the Pistons lost because of that. I think the Spurs were the sharper team. But, there are enough people out there that think the Pistons had too much to overcome in the name of the Spurs and the Brown speculation. ESPN, whether it cares or not, is affecting the preparation and focus of the Florida Gators because it can’t wait three days to beat the “Donovan to Kentucky” story to death. Obviously, every other news outlet is doing the same so it’s not solely ESPN’s fault.

This stuff goes on all the time. I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time but I was waiting for a story that got me riled-up enough to invest the requisite effort for a post. We live in world where there is rarely ever an opportunity to turn back once things go beyond a certain point. I suppose there is always a way of turning things around but you can see by the whole “global warming” and the “dependency on foreign oil” things how hard it is to reverse a course. Once the sports media started to participate in its own version of an “arm’s race”, the fate of the sports world was sealed. It’ll just keep getting more annoying to the point that it turns into another version of a Hollywood Gossip magazine—if it isn’t there already. So, I’m OK with filing this under a “rant” and moving on to something happier like how Dwyane will miraculously heal just in time to drop a bomb on the Pistons in the playoffs.

1 comment:

Lombaowski said...

Believe it or not the sports media is about as sensationalized as it was in 1920. Problem is that TV and this medium just magnify things exponentially.

I barely watch sports news anymore but instead prefer to get my information from specific internet sources. I watch the games and the halftime/in-game stuff but little else. I've watched Sports Center three times in the past month and I spent almost three weeks in the States. It's really a bunch of visual fodder with little substance at this point.

 

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